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Editorial: Will APS allow students to enter schools this year?

“Masks Make Sure NM Kids Can Go Back to School”

That was the message on Department of Transportation signs around Albuquerque on Monday. Maybe there should have been a footnote that said: “But not in Albuquerque.”

Despite declining COVID case numbers and a favorable positive test rate in Bernalillo County, it appears Albuquerque Public Schools is on the verge of telling its 80,000 plus students to plan on remote learning for the foreseeable future.

Whatever happened to “flattening the curve” as the rationale for keeping things locked down?

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made the call in late July to start school in remote mode on Aug. 12 with a tentative target of phasing kids back into the classroom after Labor Day. This aligned with an APS plan to allow many students to return to the classroom on a hybrid schedule by Sept. 8.

But several APS board members, including President David Peercy, said last week that’s not likely to happen. “I don’t think there is a prayer we are going to get out of remote for the near term,” he said.

What’s “near term?” Who knows. Board member Candelaria Patterson said she’s in favor of remote learning through 2020. Member Barbara Petersen says the end of October at the earliest for in-person, but is open to extending that.

Teacher unions across the country have pushed hard against in-person classes.

APS isn’t alone. Santa Fe schools also plans remote learning indefinitely (even as New York City schools are opening.)

This, of course, will be devastating to many students and parents. The quality of remote learning being offered will be nowhere near as effective. Many kids will never log in. Many families have limited internet and computer capabilities.

There will be other consequences, such as the lack of reporting suspected abuse, mental health consequences of continued isolation and the fact many students will be out and about in an environment that is less safe than socially distanced schools requiring masks, extra cleaning and Plexiglas shields.

Of course, vulnerable teachers should have the choice of working remotely. Families should have a choice of remote learning. But, they should have a choice.

Rio Rancho Schools still plans to open with the hybrid model and it’s a safe bet that while APS plans to keep the doors closed, some of the most successful charter schools will open for some in-person instruction after Labor Day unless the governor orders otherwise.

Will she? Hospitalizations are down. Case counts in Bernalillo County are down. The overall positive test ratio was 2.5% with 5,136 positives tests out of 206,222 tests as of Monday. The rate of spread for the region, including Bernalillo County, as of Aug. 9 was down to 0.58 – the best ever.

There is no question this is a difficult decision as APS board members wrestle with keeping students and teachers safe. Teachers say they are more at risk of contracting the virus than other essential workers such as nurses, doctors, grocery workers and police because of their close and extended interaction with students.

But if teachers are too concerned to go back now, they aren’t likely to feel much different by Jan. 1. Unfortunately, COVID is going to be around awhile, including months after we get a successful vaccine. So are we talking about shutting down for the entire school year? Or beyond, if the criteria is zero risk?

In addition to kids and families, the other loser will be public education. As schools sit empty and homebound teachers draw regular salaries for less effective work – regardless of the extra hours and effort many are putting in to make this successful – there will be more opposition to funding public schools. If we are going to do online instruction, why not use providers who are already really good at it?

Meanwhile, many parents are banding together in “learning pods” to hire teachers or tutors. Once parents get used to that, will they ever go back? Some will, but public schools will tilt increasingly toward lower incomes, while those who can afford to do so stick with alternatives they were forced to find. There is a true danger of widening the education achievement gap.

And online instruction eliminates one of the value propositions for public schools: child care while parents work.

Interim Superintendent Scott Elder will speak to the APS board before it votes on Aug. 19.

He said that while the district is prepared to stay in remote, “I will warn you … there are consequences to this decision.”

Indeed there are. For students, for parents and for the future of public education.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.